Every second-generation immigrant needs to return to their roots at some point in their life.
After quitting my PhD, I decided to go on a journey which I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time, I visited my motherland of Hong Kong for the first time as an adult.
Note I did visit Hong Kong way back in 2002, though I was only 10 years old then so naturally it was a massive culture shock. I couldn’t remember much of that trip to be honest, apart from the insane amount of promotion for the movie Infernal Affairs, a movie which subsequently will always have a place in my heart. But here I was, a little bit older and wiser, and my gut instinct told me this was the right time to go and confront my heritage. This was a personal journey I needed to embark on alone, I had no idea what I was searching for in my motherland; my identity, peace? All I knew was I was going to eventually find something at the end of this 2 week pilgrimage.
Although the trip allowed me to reconnect with some long lost relatives whom I have not seen for almost 14 years and to catch up with a number of old university friends, I spent the majority of my time discovering Hong Kong alone. I was actually very comfortable with this for I felt the solidarity would allow greater freedom and in a sense, make this trip more personal. My relatives were very kind in letting me lodge in their flat which was situated in Kwai Fong, an area in the older northern region of Hong Kong known as the New Territories. Armed with a Rough Guide, my wits and my unique ability to understand Cantonese yet not be able string and speak a coherent sentence of it, I began my journey.
The first area I planned to explore was the southern Hong Kong Island region, the area most people would consider to be the centre of Hong Kong for this is where the primary tourism, financial and shopping hubs were located. Travelling south from the New Territories I had to cross a strip of the South China sea that separates the two regions; I could have just continued on the MTR (Hong Kong’s version of the tube) but with a dirt cheap historical ferry service available, I chose the latter. There was just something beautiful and somewhat poignant sitting on the Star Ferry, breathing in the fresh ocean air as you listen to the water lap around walls of the iconic white and green vessel. This mode of transport has been shuttling the people of Hong Kong for nearly 130 years and here was one of Hong Kong’s prodigal sons using it for the first time to explore his motherland.
Stepping off the ferry and I was swept along by the fellow crowd of commuters making their way into Central. I couldn’t help noticing how metropolitan, hectic and busy it felt. I’ve spent 7 years living in London which has its own share of hustle and bustle yet Hong Kong’s pace was almost overwhelming. The architecture and infrastructure felt very different from the UK too, I was constantly surrounded by towering steel and concrete behemoths protruding from every side. I must also mention the almost oppressive heat and humidity Hong Kong displayed, something that took me a while to get used to.
I spent most of the morning wandering around Central with no real sense of direction or purpose, simply losing myself in Hong Kong’s urban jungle of walkways and side streets. I eventually ended up in the main shopping hub of Des Voeux Road and thus amused myself with some window shopping.
Lunch came in the form of visiting a famous local hole in wall siu mei (Chinese barbecued meat) establishment unexpectedly situated in midst of this commercial shopping district. My broken British-Cantonese somehow successfully obtained me a plate of what many believe to be the best roast goose and rice in town (the blogs were right). Despite the typical brisk service and uninspiring decor, I felt very much at home in this simple eatery. This is what I wanted to experience, a real unfiltered view of my motherland, and I was more than content sitting here eating a simple plate of meat and rice in a small family run place squashed in with a bunch of locals. Who needs high class fine dining when you can experience something with this much history, atmosphere and character?
That afternoon, I decided to tackle one of Hong Kong’s most famous tourist attraction, Victoria Peak. On my way there, I explored some of the beautiful urban parks scattered around on Hong Kong Island where I fell in love with the extreme juxtaposition of nature and man they exhibited, something I rarely see in the UK. To ascend Victoria Peak, a steep tram ride is required to reach the top where bar the sight-seeing, other attractions include various shopping outlets and the Hong Kong Madam Tussaud’s, the latter housing one of the most uncanny models of Bruce Lee I’ve ever seen. It looked more like Stephen Chow than the late martial arts movie legend. In spite of questionable wax figurines, it was easy to understand why many tourists and locals visit this attraction as I drank in the view of the whole of Hong Kong from 500m elevation.
It was here I experienced my first of many interactions with other fellow tourists, thus initiating my new favourite pastime of surprising tourists with my “British-English”.
Being East Asian, I was of course able to blend in amazingly well with the locals, with the facade only breaking once I open my mouth.
A Canadian couple found this out when they asked me for directions as we waited for the tram to descend down the Peak. I think the novelty factor of a fellow clueless Asian tourist who spoke English with a British accent amused them greatly and I was cool with that, the whole scenario was rather Pythonesque in fairness. We had a nice chat and eventually parted way for it transpired they were only in Hong Kong for a single day.
I was determined to explore Lantau Island on my second day, or more accurately, Ngong Ping village where the Po Lin monastery and Tian Tan Buddha statue were located. Being a weekend, I set off pretty early and was thus rewarded with a virtually empty queue to the cable cars leading to the said mountain village. I’ve experienced the Sugarloaf Mountain cable cars when I was in Brazil for a scientific conference back in 2014 yet this ride definitely beats that in terms of scenery, and journey length. The first section of the village was weirdly very commercial, littered with Hello Kitty monuments and paraphernalia. I’ve never understood Hong Kong’s morbid fascination with this mouthless anthropomorphic cat.
The 250 metric ton bronze Tian Tan Buddha stands at an impressive 112 ft, enthroned on a lotus plant with his left palm opened in his lap representing generosity and his right arm raised, representing the removal of affliction. It was a true work of art and craftsmanship to marvel at and I couldn’t help but feel a wave of frisson once I ascended the 268 stone steps to reach him. In the Po Lin monastery, I found myself burning and offering my first joss sticks, a ritual I’ve always seen my family do but never performed myself. I’ve never been a religious person, religion was a topic I rarely think about or discuss to be honest, but I decided to do this as a sign of respect for the temple and I guess, a sign of respect for my heritage and background. When in Rome etc. I was really fond of the monastery, there was a real sense of peace and tranquility echoing throughout the grounds.
My 3rd day saw me go on a 3 hours morning hike, or more accurately, pleasant stroll, with my aunts and her friends on one of her weekly Sunday hikes. We hiked a scenic trail around the Jubliee (Shing Mun) reservoir in the New Territories where we also bumped into a number of wild monkeys and oxen. I was aware of Hong Kong’s extraordinary number of country parks and thus was determined to experience some of them during my stay. The foliage and environment were very different from the UK national parks I was used to, very tropical and exotic, almost House of Flying Daggers-like. The rest of the day was spent with some old university friends for a much anticipated catch-up; eating Taiwanese food and amusing them with my questionable control of the Cantonese language, something they never hear me use in London.
I had a little bit of spare time in the evening so I crossed the sea again via ferry back to Tsim Sha Tsui to witness A Symphony of Light, a daily lightshow spectacle put on by the buildings on both side of the harbour. The waterfront was fully packed with locals and tourists waiting for the 8.00pm show to start; given the size of the crowd, I was expecting something dazzling and memorable. In the end, I was unimpressed and rather disappointed by it. A fellow US tourist who I befriended shortly afterwards shared the same opinion, maybe our expectations were just too high. Just a bunch of coloured lasers shooting out of some tall buildings we both remarked. I eventually bid Tyrone farewell and wished him well in his quest to find some sick clubbing venues over in Hong Kong Island.
All in all, the first few days in my motherland were very enjoyable, yet surreal. I had conquered my initial fear of the inevitable communications barrier for my hybrid British English-Cantonese combo was sufficient for survival. Plus I thought I had adapted quite quickly and amicably to Hong Kong’s hectic way of life. I almost felt like a local, looking like one helps I guess. What other wonders and experiences await me in the next chapter of my journey? Overpriced Guinness and creepy abandoned island villages it transpires.